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Film Preservationist Nicolas Winding Refn Says “Digital Is So Much Better”

Film Preservationist Nicolas Winding Refn Says "Digital Is So Much Better"

The great celluloid vs. digital debate continues, and if you haven’t seen it, you should definitely watch the Keanu Reeves-hosted doc “Side By Side” for an in depth look at the issue. On one side, you have early digital adopters like David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh. Then you have the purists like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, who have worked to salvage Kodak film stock and with the latter going one step further and vowing to take out DCP projectors out of his New Beverly theater. Paul Thomas Anderson is another filmmaker hell-bent on shooting on film stock as well.

But then there’s Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of “Drive” who straddles both camps. A cineaste who recently joined PTA as a member of the The American Genre Film Archive advisory board, Refn is quite happy to shoot digitally. Filmmakers are usually divided on the subject, but Refn has a refreshingly non-purist view, one that values the past but also has an eye on the future.

“Digital is so much better. I shoot on digital, always. ‘Drive,’ ‘Only God Forgives’…’Bronson’ was the last film I shot on film, on Super 16mm,” Refn said in an recent interview with Deadline. “It’s not a substitute, it’s just another canvas —and a canvas that has allowed more creativity than anything else in the world.”

Many filmmakers usually lament the fact that younger audiences are likely going to be watching their IMAX-intended movie on iPads and soon iWatches, but Refn is happy to accept the fact that they’re just watching.

“Don’t try to fight it. Embrace it,” he said of the digital film. “That’s a wonderful opportunity. We’re at the most exciting time since the invention of the wheel, in terms of creativity because distribution and accessibility have changed everything. A camera is still a camera whether it’s digital or not; there’s still sound; an actor is an actor.”

Change is not already coming, it’s here and Refn sounds ahead of the curve. “Ninety-nine percent of what you do is going to be seen on a smart phone —I know this is the greatest thing ever made because it allows people to choose, watching what you do on this format or go into a theater and see it on a screen. That means more people than ever will see what I do, which is personally satisfying in terms of vanity. But you have to be able to adapt, to accept things in different order and length than we’re used to. We are in a very, very exciting time.”

This raises interesting questions, because it’s clear that celluloid is preferred from a cinephile perspective. Just look at the texture in the trailer of last night’s “Inherent Vice” trailer and it’s hard to argue against it. But even PTA hasn’t decided whether he’s going to screen his latest movie on a film or DCP print at the New York Film Festival (and it sounds like the decision will come down to the wire).

A format is just a format and the content is really what’s king, right? Does the fetishization of celluloid have value? Lots to ponder, so share your throughts below. 

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Format is content. Content is format.

Would you take away Picasso’s paint brush and give him a crayon and just say, "Deal with it"?


Indeed, shooting digital is better, faster, and easier to distribute with a flick of a switch. What surprises me about this discussion is that there is no thoughts about archiving digital. At the Cinegear Expo 14′ there were plenty of horror stories of projects shot on digital that were lost as a result of corrupted files. The 4K screening of "50 ways to die in the west was preceded by a discussion involving the DOP, and the Post Production Supervisor, lauding the wonderful F55 camera, then quietly informing the audience they archived on 35mm.
If we allow the dazzling performance of the front end and the cost effective distribution system at the back end we will lose what is actually most important. The ability to archive "gig-a-second" files has not caught up with the rest of the workflow. We are still able to view film shot over 100 years ago. How many people have had a hard drive cook with family photos on it? Keep eating up the producer’s game of flogging film because "it costs so much/takes so long" and watch what happens when we rely on digital to save the vaults of our work.


As a professional film preservationist, I’m with Ariel that Refn is NOT a film preservationist, and it’s actually quite belittling to those of us within the profession to say that he is one. The fact is, this article has nothing to do with film preservation. Plus, it’s not like you’re saying anything new. A lot of filmmakers prefer shooting on digital, and it has a lot of benefits, but film has a lot of benefits too. It ultimately comes down to a matter of preference. I mainly shoot on digital because it’s what I can afford and because shooting on film is too risky. But as far as preservation goes, as of right now, having master copies on polyester film stock is the best method of preserving film. Granted, film preservationists (the real ones, who do it as a profession) are aware that we’re going to have to deal with the fact that preserving on film is not a viable long term solution, especially as Kodak continues to taper off their film stock production, but it’s something they are continuing to work on, and articles like this are incredibly frustrating because it dismisses the work being done by professional film preservationist and archivists dealing with both analogue and digital preservation.

Miss modal

I appreciate Refn’s seeming openness and flexibility regarding formats. Film is clearly much more expensive and so I think that folks like Anderson, Nolan and Tarantino should acknowledge the privilege that they possess in being able to fund films shot on film (and I am sure that they do!) as most film makers don’t have such a luxury, which Refn seems to recognize. Going back to Refn’s own ‘Pusher’, I’m sure he would shoot that film today digitally without hesitation as that format is more within reach of a young filmmaker trying to make his or her own film (that film looks like it was shot maybe on 16mm, obviously cheaper than 35mm; I’m sure if he had the money, he would have shot it on 35!). In terms of image quality, texture, etc., I would imagine most viewers can’t tell he difference; that said, seeing Nolan’s last film on IMAX was pretty incredible- I’ll take IMAX over 3D any day, but the costs and restraints of that format are unbelievable. I recall going to a screening of ‘Holy Motors’ where Leos Carax was interviewed afterward and he lamented that because the movie was shot digitally, it didn’t look as good as it could have were it shot on film (he especially fixated on skin tones); that’s a beautiful film and, sure, I would have loved to see it look even better, but the broader point that he was making (perhaps in spite of himself) was that the film wouldn’t have been made AT ALL if he wanted to shoot on film because there simply wasn’t the money for it. For that film not to be made would have really been criminal, and Refn’s point is very salient here: that movie is fantastic because of the acting, the directing, the lighting, the editing and to me, the loss in image depth is a fine trade off, especially if the alternative is not having that film at all.


I love the look and feel of film but it’s not the only way to skin a cat, and digital can also look great.

But for me the crux of argument and what brought me down on the side of digital was something that Wally Psfer said in "side by side" – and I’m para-phasing here – ‘that working with film was like working with oil paints and as an artist why would he want to work with anything else?" Well last time I checked oil paints weren’t the only medium an artist limits himself to, and to suggest otherwise makes you look closed minded, narrow and quite the opposite of an artist.

case in point being his own movie "Transcendence" which could have been hand painted frame by frame but it still wouldn’t have been a good movie.


I agree with David Lynch.


Film looks better. But digital is just easier for those starting out or for small budgeted material.
Not to say digital looks shit. Soderbergh and Fincher are masters of making it a viable and dazzling format to shoot on.

I just think film lovers/digital naysayers need to shut it.


Joshua, you don’t have to be ‘lamenting the death of 35mm’ because it’s far from dead! Since I can’t link here, just google ‘Kodak shot on film’ and you’ll see an extensive list of recent, current and forthcoming films shot on 35mm and 16mm.

Joshua Caldwell

There seems to be this suggestion out there that storytelling and cinema are only possible by shooting on 35mm and/or projecting on 35mm and it just couldn’t be further from the truth.

Some of the greatest films ever made were shot on 35mm simply because THAT’S ALL THAT WAS AVAILABLE AT THE TIME. It wasn’t a divine gift from God. Digital is in its infancy and 50 years from now we’ll probably be saying that some of the greatest films every made were shot on digital.

I’m honestly passed the point of lamenting the death of 35mm. I really appreciate that there are filmmakers trying to keep it alive and my hope would be that it remains a viable format for years to come. And I still have hope that I might be shooting a project of my own on film. But we’re no longer dealing with VHS or 60i digital. The cameras today are incredible and have their nuances, just like films stocks.

‘Cinema’ is to experience something profound — a story and/or characters that move you, take you beyond the dark room you’re sitting in. It is not the method by which that story is created. I’m not trying to dismiss the work of cinematographers who have created indelible images using film — but I also don’t think it’s right to discredit the work being done in digital by (many of the same) incredible cinematographers.

A novel is no less moving or profound if it was written on a computer vs. a typewriter. A photograph is no less important whether it was shot on digital or on film. The method by which a story is ‘produced’ does not add to or subtract from it’s quality.

There is so much more to ‘cinema’ and storytelling than the format and to suggest that it’s only possible on 35mm is both narrow-minded and wrong.

Ariel Schudson

Nic Winding-Refn is one of my all-time fave directors, so this is not meant in any way as disrespectful towards him but neither he, not any of the other directors you mentioned are "film preservationists." They are all talented and trained at what they do, but they are on the PRODUCTION end. The work that my colleagues and my mentors have been doing since the 1940s? THAT is film preservation. People like Henri Langlois, Ernst Lindgren, Iris Barry were pioneers in the field and we have come a long way. It’s a very specific field (much like filmmaking itself) with its own definitions & tenets. We are *most certainly* dealing with digital issues currently. To say otherwise would be idiocy. I would recommend the works put out by the Academy Archive, the Digital Dilemma 1 & 2 for a starter (the info changes every few months- no joke).
I apologize for what may seem like a diatribe comment, but I feel accuracy in journalism is essential.


I can’t really disagree with what Refn says. He has valid points. While I am a purist when it comes to the quality of celluloid compared to digital format. I am not a complete purist in that digital has its merits. As Refn says, it is definitely another platform in which the audience can choose to watch the films being put out there. It is great that it will reach a much wider audience. But the only issue I still have is that, it detracts from the cinema experience. Nothing can replace going to a dark movie theater to see a film I’m excited about on the big screen.

I can’t imagine myself watching Inherit Vice, 2001, Bladerunner or any cinematic opus on a tiny little device and get the same experience as a movie theater. Hell, look at the 70mm IMAX experience! How do you get that same feeling on an Iwatch or Iphone??? I just can’t. And I feel we’re pushing it too much to the point where the quality of the content is going to just look like TV. Cheap. What’s the point of making films then?

Jebediah Hool

Digital is a lie that must be annihilated.

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